Due to a procedural change in how the U.S. government processes some green cards, faith communities across the nation may lose thousands of leaders and workers when their temporary work visas expire.
For those in ministry, the line used to be short to get a green card before their visas expired. But that changed last March when the State Department announced it had been placing in the wrong line tens of thousands of applications for neglected or abused minors from Central America for the last seven years.
Since the mid-2010s, a growing number of youth from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have applied for humanitarian green cards or asylum after crossing into the U.S. illegally. So, the department started adding them to the general queue with the clergy. This change means that only applications filed before January 2019 are currently being processed, moving forward the Central American minors by a few months, but leaving clergy with a nearly five-year wait for green cards as their visas expire.
"They're doing everything they're supposed to be doing and all of a sudden, they're totally steamrolled," Matthew Curtis, an immigration attorney in New York City told the Associated Press. "It's like a bombshell on the system."
As a result, ministries and other religious organizations will likely stop hiring foreign workers precisely when they're most needed due to the growing demand for leaders of immigrant congregations who can speak languages other than English and understand other cultures.
Across all faith traditions, there are few options for these workers to continue their U.S.-based ministry, attorneys say. At a minimum, they would need to go abroad for a year before being eligible for another temporary religious worker visa, and repeat that process, paying thousands in fees, throughout the decade – or for however long their green card application stays pending.
In a social media post, journalist Jonathan Choe noted how ironic the situation is, writing, "Faith leaders are usually the first one in line to help illegal immigrants."
The American Immigration Lawyers Association and faith leaders, like Chicago's Catholic cardinal and coalitions of evangelical pastors, have lobbied the Biden administration and Congress to fix the problem.
The most effective and immediate fix would be for Congress to remove from this category the vulnerable minors' applications, attorneys say.
"They shouldn't be pitted against each other in competition for visas," said Matthew Soerens, who leads the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national immigrant advocacy organization.
Deported Evangelist Issues a Warning to Christians
The news of the State Department's visa fiasco comes after a high-profile case in which a Christian minister was recently deported from the U.S.
As CBN News reported in late September, Torben Søndergaard spoke to CBN News in an exclusive interview after his deportation. He was held for a year in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Baker County Facility in Macclenny, Florida.
Søndergaard was taken into custody on June 30 last year in Florida by agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, while awaiting a decision on an asylum application with the U.S. government. He was told he was being arrested for gun smuggling, even though he was never charged with that, and denies ever being involved in anything illicit. He was then accused of overstaying his visa.
At a House subcommittee hearing in July, the Chairman of the Border Security and Enforcement Subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA), accused the Biden administration of targeting and persecuting Søndergaard.
Higgins told the subcommittee that Søndergaard "...is a legal immigrant from Denmark, came to our country legally, applied for asylum properly and no criminal charges. He was arrested for overstaying his visa. He's been incarcerated and in solitary confinement for over one year. He's been persecuted by this administration and targeted, we believe because he's an evangelical Christian minister."
Søndergaard and his family had fled religious persecution in Denmark in 2019, leaving their home country with only their suitcases. They thought they would find refuge in the United States. They never expected the harsh treatment they would receive from the U.S. government.
In his first media interview since being deported, he told CBN News how shocked he was to be imprisoned in America.
"I think the biggest thing was shock," Søndergaard said. "I did not understand how this could happen in a country like America, where there's so many Christians and churches and ministries."
He believes his experience is also a warning to the church that persecution is coming.
"We think (persecution) is for the few extreme (Christians) out there. And we think we are safe if we just don't do like them. And maybe it's just a few now, but it's a few now, and then in a short time it will be the many. And in the future, it will be everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord," Søndergaard said.
Torben's asylum application is still pending, but for now, he has finally been reunited with his wife and family.
"I'm very close to my wife and my daughters, and my wife went through a very, very, hard time in all of this. It's good to be out. It's good to be free, so I feel excited for the next season. At the same time, I feel a little homeless. I don't know, 'What now? What is going to happen now?'"